Video Games

How Mortal Kombat Led to the Birth of E3 and ESRB

How Mortal Kombat Led to the Birth of E3 and ESRB

“Long Live Mortal Kombat – The Definitive Story of MK” unfolds behind closed doors to reveal untold stories from the creation of Mortal Kombat 1-4 and explore how the franchise has shaped popular culture. Written by David L. Craddock (@davidlcraddock), the book is currently funded Starter.

In this excerpt, industry superpowers come together to determine how to self-regulate content – ​​knowing that if they fail, the government will do it for them.


Rob Holmes had a strong suspicion that Howard Lincoln was p****d. “He started by walking into the room and saying, ‘I’m really p****d. That was the conversation starter,” says Holmes, co-founder of Acclaim Entertainment.

Holmes had met with the general counsel and senior vice president of Nintendo of America a few minutes earlier to escort him to the meeting. The summit had taken months to prepare. It was January, and the 1994 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was winding down. The booths where exhibitors like Nintendo and Acclaim showcased their latest software were cramped and stuffy, but the boardroom where Lincoln made his memorable entrance wasn’t much better. “It was just as the show was ending, and we were sitting around what was, essentially, a big card table,” Holmes adds.

Representatives from some of the biggest video game studios in the world had crowded into the room and into chairs. Some were friends, some acquaintances, some bitter enemies. There was Larry Probst, CEO of Electronic Arts. Other representatives were present on behalf of Activision, Konami, Capcom and Sega of America President Tom Kalinske, perhaps Lincoln’s biggest source of bad temper.

Four months ago, Acclaim’s “Mortal Monday” campaign released millions of cartridges containing home versions of mortal combat. Nintendo’s Super NES and Game Boy editions were selling well, but for the first time Sega beat them at retail. “To put that into perspective, you have Howard Lincoln now denying that the Genesis version was far superior, at least in the minds of gamers, thanks to blood code,” Holmes explains.

Mortal Kombat was just the tip of a growing iceberg. Every month, it seemed like more and more publishers were forgoing deals to make games exclusively for Nintendo hardware and opting to put their titles on Super NES and Genesis. Even Acclaim, the first North American publisher to release games on the NES in the late 80s, played both sides. Electronic Arts had gone a step further by making its hit series John Madden NFL Football exclusive to Sega; EA executives had no intention of being handcuffed by Nintendo’s harsh policies.

Holmes knew that Lincoln understood the business acumen of Acclaim and the other companies defecting to Sega. He also knew that it didn’t make public announcements any easier for Nintendo executives to swallow. Lincoln and his bosses, Nintendo Company Ltd. president Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo of America executive Minoru Arakawa, were used to publishers crawling for the opportunity to host software on their platforms. Now Lincoln was surrounded by allies turned defectors.

Holmes sympathized with Lincoln but had no time to play referee. It served a unique role: Acclaim was the only publisher to work with all the other companies represented at the summit. “We were the only ones in the room who could make that claim,” says Holmes. He and his co-founders Greg Fischbach and Jim Scoroposki had coordinated the meeting, which they saw as imperative for the survival of the industry. “The pressure came on,” Holmes says, “and we reached out to Nintendo and Sega and said, ‘Hell is breaking loose. He will continue to rage. We have to sit down and talk,” says Holmes.

Beneath the surface, Lincoln was most upset about what happened during last month’s hearing. The event, televised and widely reported in mainstream media, had apparently focused on violent games like Mortal Kombat, but turned into a brawl between Nintendo and Sega. The senators had chastised the industry as a whole and ordered them to come up with a system of self-regulation of their game content – ​​or else. “Here you have these people who, at this point, are basically sworn enemies,” Holmes recalled. “The most recent experience they had with each other from a business perspective would have been during Senate hearings.”

The meeting agenda was loose and simple. To speak. Find solutions. One topic that came up early on was the state of the industry. There was too much going on. Nintendo and Sega were vying for dominance, which was infuriating for them but great for the publishers. More consoles competing for market share meant more platforms to develop games on. Publishers sprang up all over the world as Nintendo and Sega made video game publishing more profitable, but their industry was still seen by other larger industries as the latest child chosen for the dodgeball team.

The original Mortal Kombat spawned a massive multimedia series, including games, toys, and movies
The original Mortal Kombat spawned a massive multimedia series, including games, toys, and movies (Image: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

That, at least, was something everyone could agree on. CES organizers moved publishers with exhibitors from the adult video industry or to less crowded areas of the room. “At a gig, I can’t remember what year it was, but it was pouring rain,” Holmes recalled. “We were walking in our neighborhood and there were leaks in the ceiling.”

After heated discussion, the titans of the game agreed that the senators should be dealt with first. Once Washington was on its back, they could talk about raising stakes at CES and going elsewhere. Maybe even start a lounge just for video games. “We talked about having to do something and that we weren’t 100% sure what it would be like,” admits Holmes. “This is the first time we’ve addressed the common realization that we didn’t feel like we were getting the proper attention from CES, so we talked about putting together an indie game show that would is then transformed into E3.”

Dealing with politicians meant devising an unbiased way of evaluating games. Sega already had an action plan. By May 1993, Kalinske and his team had left the 9–13 demographic to Nintendo as they focused on their gamers, a third of whom were 18 or older. Kalinske had also expected a blowback from Mortal Kombat and other violent games, so he decided to develop a rating system for Sega titles. One of its earliest appointees had been Arthur Pober, a New York educator best known as the former principal of Hunter College Elementary School and current director of special programs for the New York City Board of Education. York and director of Gifted and Talented. Education for New York City, among a myriad of other qualifications. Kalinske had met Pober when he was working in the toy industry. Now he wanted Pober to lead a board of independent sociologists, psychologists, child development experts and educators.

Pober had assembled a council of experts with Kalinske’s approval, and this council had devised the Videogame Rating Council, a system that would assign ratings to every game on Sega hardware. The easiest solution seemed to be to adopt the guidelines used by the Motion Picture Association of America. Kalinske met with MPAA President Jack Valenti to adopt their system. “It was so well known,” Kalinske says. “PG, PG-13, et cetera. And he refused. He dismissed the video game industry as being this little thing, like, ‘Why would I want to get my hands dirty with this?'”

Pober and the Council have devised their own system. What they came up with was a list of ratings similar to the MPAA’s. “GA” was the equivalent of a film’s “G” rating; “MA-13” suggested parents review content before their children read it; and “MA-17”, like the “R” rated films, targeted adult audiences. These ratings were not intended to censor the games, Sega said, but to serve as guidelines for parents.

At the meeting, Kalinske proposed that the Videogame Rating Council could be used by all publishers. Lincoln didn’t agree right away. “Howard didn’t want anything to do with it, since it was Sega’s thing,” says Holmes. At the end of the meeting, the tension was still palpable. “What I would say came out of that was not a final decision other than, okay, we’ll have people meeting in the immediate future,” Holmes recalled.

Although future meetings would bear more fruit, the magnitude of this first gathering did not escape anyone. “It was also good for Nintendo and Sega. They realized they didn’t need to be friends, but they needed to talk to each other. It set a different tone for how the industry itself operated. “, said Holmes. “This is one of the most important reunions that has happened at this time in video game history.”

After putting distance between him and his rivals, the reality of what was at stake hit Howard Lincoln like a slap in the face.

This meeting had marked the first time that so many delegates from the nascent video game industry had occupied the same space. A look at all the faces around the table had been the only proof he needed to understand how much their business had grown in a relatively short time. The room was small, but the financial stakes were high: each person at this table represented a company worth millions of dollars. If industry leaders failed to regulate themselves, they would lose control of their growing empire. “It pales in comparison to the industry’s current market capitalization, but at that time, a billion dollar marketing capitalization was not to be overlooked,” says Robert Holmes.

Swallowing his personal feelings, Lincoln took the next step. “Howard was the first to reach out and say, ‘We can’t go on like this. We have to sit down,'” Holmes recalled. “The animosity in that first encounter was very real, but Howard was mature enough to think, I need to be able to sit down with Tom Kalinske and the others so we can figure this thing out.”